Very early in this year, 2013, I awoke with a song in my ear from across a distant lifetime: “Come back to Erin, to Erin, to Erin.” It is a song that begins in a major key, plummets to a minor key in the first phrase, recovers, and then goes cloyingly along. Erin is a village deep in the south of Trinidad, the land of my birth, so I got up thinking that something might not be right at home.

Some will understand this sort of inexplicable reflex visitation that age and displacement conspire to bring about. In this instance, the Come Back to Erin was also being sung in my father’s baritone, and you didn’t take a last shut-eye when the old schoolmaster called.

Songs like Come Back to Erin were an a capella treat in tonic sol-fa my father taught to soften the inquisition of Panel Inspection when officials from the Ministry of Education descended on our school for annual student testing, not only of the 3 Rs, but of Hygiene and Geography as well, the latter, mainly on capitals of the world. So from tomes like Hymns Ancient and Modern and British and American folk songs: That’s how I learnt The Day Thou Gavest Lord is Ended, Old Swanee River, The Ash Grove, Tavern in the Town and yes, Come Back to Erin, an Irish folk song.

By the way Erin, Trinidad, has nothing to do with the Father Hennessys and Doughertys, that bastion of Irish Catholicism that plagued my guilt-ridden childhood. According to NALIS, the Trinidad National Library, Erin derives from a Native Indian word, corrupted by the  Spanish in the naming of a settlement, “Herine” in the same general location on early maps..

Whatever! The name could as well have been from a medley of other origins in an island with overlapping ownerships, synchronizing Venezuelan parang, cassareep lore, Francophone patois, and at one time even a French newspaper in a territory where the official language was English. Trinidad is a conglomeration of fanciful place names from every tribe that came – from Champs Fleurs to Chaguaramas to Chandernagore.  

Later in the day of my Erin awakening, however, another place name also came to me from the past – Timbuktu. For it was January 28, 2013, the day that awoke to the burning of the books.

Timbuktu was not one of the capitals I had to learn for Panel Inspection referred to earlier. I only knew of Timbuktu as Trinidadian‘ fatigue,’ aka ‘picong’ or joke. Instead of saying someone lived Quite-o-Quite’ or ‘Behind God back,’ you could also silence the country-bookie by asking him if he was from Timbuktu. Just as you could silence the blackest boy in the class by rechristening him Lumumba, and the boy who came to college in Port-of-Spain with blue food in a three-tiered aluminium pail, sans pocket-change to go down Frederick Street with the coloured boys to buy Stauble’s pies, Kassavubu. Except as nicknames, the only other place you would find words like Timbuktu in the years of my growing were in the middle-class taboos – Better Village and the bachannalian current affairs calypso.

These stumps of displaced memory coming out of nowhere seemed to me important collectibles. For not only were they fragments of a Caribbean of the not too distant past, but also they framed the void around a mosaic of artfully scored pieces like fillers locking in stained glass.

For in the Caribbean education I know (and here I can only speak of Trinidad), History leaped in the space of five to ten years from Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington to The People Who Came, Books 1, 2, and 3. No Blame. But in the patchwork of that education, it was as if nothing came between.

Soweto, the massacres and the undaunted resistance of the Mandelas were not part of school; they were over-the-head, big people conversation; current news. In the Caribbean itself, Walter Rodney was taboo; he was banned from speaking on a campus. It is doubtful that even today many school children know who he was and what he wrote. In Trinidad, apart from North American media and popular culture information about the Afro (hairstyle) and the Black Panthers and Civil Rights, Blackness was left to fringe organizations like The National Joint Action Committee (NJAC) that were tainted with (and still are) with radical extremism and fanaticism. So much so, that I remember in the eighties, as a big woman with three children of my own, rushing home at lunch time to catch the 12:45 radio program of Aiegoro Ome – a series that recalled, Imoteph and Aesop and Tutankhamun – and reaching back late to work.

Needless to say, Come Back to Erin vanished from my repertoire after I left primary school. After all, my independence on many levels had come. And the Carnival Big Truck ran over it and much between. No blame! We occupied ourselves with our nationalistic selves, writing and rewriting our arts, our scholarship and our values.

No Blame. History was being urgently remade in carved-up independent Africa, too, but that was not part of our curriculum. Apart from scholars and writers who sought it out, we children didn’t know about ‘the dark continent’ and it did not know about us. At the same time, though, people were scampering about, migrating like mad and meeting brothers and sisters they did not know, for the first time on foreign ground.

In Caribbean syllabi, is History different today?  In fact, is it important for children to know this kind of history in a formal way? Or in the new dispensation is it called something else, perhaps Communication Studies in the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination (CAPE) syllabi?

To me as a child in elementary school, Africa was the prettiest continent of them all. You spun the globe and the  mosaic multi-colored quilt took off in a whitening whirr, slowly revealing its patchwork of hues again when it slowed. Africa had the shape of a familiar staple – a yam, a soursop, a zaboca hanging upside down. I had no clue that fourscore years before, that very quilt of colours was designed by 14 men in a room in 2 months. Fragmented collectibles – some periwinkle pink, some marigold yellow, some bachelor-button purple.

In 2013 they are independent, but still collectibles for cocoa and conflict minerals like diamond and coltan that enrich the world. The Conference of Berlin, hacked hands, wild rubber, King Leopold are a history not much spoken of. Instead onetime owners are in an impatient, irritable quandary about how much aid will ever be enough. And where is Kony, and should he be made famous? This is the current media history most descendents of Africa on this side of the world know.

In retrospect, I ponder these days on the leap that Caribbean education took from other people’s diversions to diversions of its own. Necessary without doubt, but in hindsight far too myopic and narcissistic. No blame. Or worse yet, blame me, for the teacher I became fell into the mould – nation-building, collecting my own small collectibles, drawing a circle around ‘the people who came.’

Came from where? I went with what I was told.

There were punctuations in this seclusion, of course. The off-curriculum tidbit of NJAC referred to is one. Also most became dependent for information on those who managed to go to visit their roots, those who visited Elmina Castle and wept. There were rites of passage and native returns. So for Social Studies a child might build a matchstick-box, packed slaver and analyse “Colonial Girls School.”

I don’t mean to belittle the nationhoods that were achieved, but in hindsight drawing a box around one’s own collectibles was neither sufficient nor the only way to go. Because one’s identity is as much shaped by oneself, as by others who decide who and what one is. Being proud of one’s self-made identity and not acknowledging the composite nature of one’s identity does not absolve. With the world condensing on so many fronts, one no longer has to leave home to meet the rest of one’s composite self, both at home and abroad.

Important pieces of the African mosaic are scattered around the world, some hidden in the basements of vast continental powers. Are they uncollectible? What really is a heritage site?

Which brings me back to Come Back to Erin that awoke this reflection, back to Timbuktu, and in a way ironically to Jean Rhys’ short story “The Day They Burned the Books.” All three about heritage and identity.  In acknowledging a short-sightedness on my part in building the past fifty years, I must say it is glaring that the work formally and informally still remains to be done.  I don’t know what songs will haunt my children, but as they get older I hope they will know a freedom that is stronger than a collection of waving flags.

© Cynthia James – October 2013

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